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Arte-Factual: Griffin-Head Protome

One of the two relics Lara discovers amongst the ruins of Midas’ Palace in Tomb Raider: Anniversary is the griffin-head protome, a bronze decorative piece that she correctly surmises was once fitted onto an Ancient Greek cauldron or drinking vessel.

What Lara’s declaration doesn’t tell us is where such an artefact would have been produced or what the use of a griffin motif could tell us about Ancient Greece’s cultural links with its neighbours across the Mediterranean.

The griffin-head protome as seen in Tomb Raider: Anniversary. Image credit: Kelly M.

Let’s start by taking a closer look at the artefact itself. A protome was a type of adornment that was often in the form of an animal head or human bust. Griffin protomes, such as the one seen in the game, would normally have been hollow and made from hammered sheets of bronze or cast in one piece using the lost wax method.

These would have been cast as separate pieces and then attached onto a ritual cauldron with bronze rivets. Several of these would have been attached to each cauldron, though this is mostly speculation;  few intact cauldrons have ever been found. It’s believed that these cauldrons would have been commissioned by high-ranking, wealthy individuals as offerings to the Olympian gods or gifted to local and foreign dignitaries in a bid to strengthen diplomatic ties.

This griffin has long pointed ears, a darting tongue, a sharp curved beak, a topknot, inlaid eyes, and an S-shaped neck. It wasn’t a traditionally Greek motif. It began to appear in Greek art during the period known as the “Orientalizing Period” (circa 8th century BC), when Greek merchants began to establish trading colonies across modern-day Syria, Turkey, Egypt, and other parts of the eastern Mediterranean. During this period of increased cultural exchange, the Greeks adopted new art styles and motifs and learnt new bronze-casting techniques from their Near Eastern neighbours.

One of the many pieces that would have been created during this period is the Proto-Corinthian owl figurine, another one of TR: Anniversary’s collectable relics. And, of course, this griffin-head protome, which not only served a decorative function but was also thought to ward off evil spirits.

Griffin protomes on display at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens.
Image credit: Photo by Kelly M.

These protomes have found in numerous sites across the Greek mainland and islands but  it’s thought that the main production centre was on the island of Samos, which lies a mere two kilometres off the coast of modern-day Turkey. The island’s proximity to ancient Asia Minor made it a prime location for commerce and allowed the Samian Greeks to establish trade links with merchants in Egypt, Cyrene (in modern-day Libya), Phoenicia, and the Black Sea region. It’s easy to see how cultural exchange would have flourished within this multicultural environment.

Over 200 griffin protomes have been excavated from the site of the Heraion, a large sanctuary on Samos that was dedicated to the goddess Hera. Similar protomes have also been found across the sea at the Sanctuary of Zeus at Olympia, no doubt a bid to garner favour with Hera’s adulterous husband. So it’s entirely possible that one protome may have found its way into the heart of a fictional ancient palace, ready to be snapped up by a certain female adventurer.

If you’d like to learn more about griffin protomes or Ancient Greece’s “Orientalizing Period”, check out the links listed under “Sources & Further Reading” below. Or click here to read about other artefacts and art works featured in the Tomb Raider series.

Sources & Further Reading:

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